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Ice bound kings convicts.., p.5

Ice Bound: King's Convicts II, page 5


Ice Bound: King's Convicts II

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  “Don’t know,” Piran replied. “But Prokief ordered the guards to go in and figure out what needs to be done to shore up the roofs of the other mine rooms with timber, and then he’s going to put together crews to do it. I heard the miners aren’t to go back in until he’s examined the reinforcements personally.” Piran gave a nasty smile. “Want to bet he’s still going to hold Pig-face to his usual quotas?”

  Blaine scowled. “He’s not the one who’ll have to mine two days’ worth of rock in one,” he pointed out. “What are we supposed to do in the meantime? While they figure out how we’re supposed to prop the roof back up.”

  Piran threw him his cloak from where it hung on a peg on the wall. “Chop wood. Fetch water for the kitchens. Raise a barn. Pretty much whatever needs a strong back.” He grinned. “But no leg irons.”

  That alone was worth celebrating, Blaine thought as he took his cloak and followed Piran and the other men downstairs. Garrick and Dunbar were still sleeping off their injuries, and were likely to be unable to do much for a few more days. But if Prokief had come down on Pig-face for ‘wasting’ his prisoner resources, that meant the odds were good the overseer would grudgingly give the injured miners at least some time to recover, rather than risk incurring Prokief’s further ire.

  Breakfast was a bit of smoked meat and a chunk of bread with a cut of salty cheese. A cup of hot, black fet washed down the food. Outside, the air was a little warmer, a pleasant change from the bitter cold of the recent winter.

  Dawe, Verran, and some of the others headed off for the stables. Guards came to collect the miners and put them to work.

  “Rowse and McFadden. There’s a woodpile over there. Split it and stack it. We’ll bring more,” he said, pointing to a huge mound of wood.

  “Bickle and Torr,” he continued, “go join the bucket brigade. The kitchen needs water to cook some food for your worthless asses.” Blaine and Piran headed off toward the woodpile as the guard continued, sending some of the miners to lend a hand with chores, including several who were sent out to the fields now that planting had begun.

  “Not too bad, considering the choices,” Piran said as he rolled up his sleeves. Blaine did the same, and then rolled a thick length of wood into position as he took up his axe. He had cut plenty of firewood back at Glenreith, partially out of necessity, but often to work off his rage at Ian’s latest offense. He had always found the repetition and the visible results to be gratifying.

  Blaine had not realized how much he missed sunlight. The mines had not been bad duty during the long dark, when it was nearly as black outside as it was deep below the ground. But now, in the white nights, being in the darkness of the mines during the day and coming up to the unending sunlight in the evenings turned the natural order of things upside down.

  “You think they’ll keep us in the mines for the duration?” Blaine asked. He and Piran had been silent for a while, content to settle into the steady rhythm of the axes.

  “Thing is, they could put us out on farm duty, but they can’t very well put most of the farm prisoners into the mine,” Piran said. He had been at Velant for six months longer than Blaine, and had seen more of how the camp operated. “So yeah, it’s possible.” He paused to bring his axe down with a crack on a thick chunk of wood, splitting it neatly.

  “Later this spring, we might get pulled out onto the herring boats,” he added. “Not sure you’d see that as better than the mines. It’s cold, wet work, you can’t get the fish stink off your skin for days, and the only thing worse than eating herring is gutting them.”

  “You know, I’ve been thinking about the cave-in,” Blaine said. “I’m wondering if in all the confusion, anyone ever accounted for all of the tools.”

  “Doubtful,” Piran replied. “And I’d bet some of them have been hidden and spirited away, for use at a more convenient time.”

  Blaine raised an eyebrow. “Then how come you didn’t steal one?”

  “If you recall, we were lucky enough to survive,” Piran pointed out. “I was concentrating on getting out of there alive. I’m betting the ones with the best shot of taking tools are the clean-up crew. They can always say the missing shovels and axes were destroyed.” He paused. “They’ll be the ones to loot the bodies, too, what’s left of them. And I know for certain both Carl and Hort had small knives. Wonder where they’ll turn up?” Hort and Carl had been among the convicts already established in the dormitory when Blaine and his group arrived. Piran had known them fairly well, but Blaine had never spoken to them outside of the usual comments down in the mine.

  It was easy to lose track of time, since the sun never dipped below the horizon on the white nights. Blaine’s stomach had been rumbling for a while before he spotted a dark-haired woman heading toward them with a bucket of water and a basket.

  “Food—if you’re quick about it,” she said, but although her tone was terse, her blue eyes softened the sting.

  Piran and Blaine accepted several dippers full of water gratefully, thirsty even in the cold. “It’s bread with a bit of meat and cheese stuffed inside,” she said, pulling back a cloth to reveal what was in the basket. “All the cooks were in the mood to fix, I guess. Mind that you only take one each!”

  Her stern tone did not match her face. Blaine guessed that she was close to his own age, with dark hair cut short for prison. Though her face was smudged with soot and dirt, she was pretty in a worn way.

  “Do you always stare at the people who bring you food?” she challenged.

  Piran guffawed. Blaine elbowed him and felt his cheeks redden. “No. Sorry. It’s just that—”

  “You’re new, aren’t you?” she interrupted. “And you haven’t seen a woman since you got off the ship. Sorry, mate. This is as close as they’ll let you get.”

  “What’s your name?” he asked.

  She seemed to find his interest amusing, perhaps because it was utterly hopeless. “Selane,” she replied, casting a glance over her shoulder in case a guard was looming. “And I’d better keep moving if I know what’s good for me—and I usually do.” She seemed to relent. “What’s your name?”

  “Mick,” Blaine replied. “And this is—”

  Selane rolled her eyes. “Everybody here knows Piran Rowse. He’s a bit like the pox—popping up everywhere, like it or not.”

  “Hey!” Piran objected. “I don’t have the pox!”

  Selane gave him a measured head-to-toe glance. “Mind I said ‘pox,’ not ‘clap,’” she retorted. “I might believe you about the pox.”

  “Thanks for the food,” Blaine said, before Piran could manage to steal her complete attention.

  “I’m usually in the laundry,” Selane said. “But things are crazy enough today, they sent us around with food. I probably won’t see you again.”

  “You never know,” he replied, although he suspected she was right. She gave Blaine a shy smile, made a gesture as if to swat Piran out of her way, and headed down the line with her bucket and basket.

  “Just for the record,” Piran said indignantly. “I do not have the clap.”

  “What do you know about her?” Blaine asked, following Selane with his gaze.

  Piran chuckled. “Stop mooning. I’ve seen her once or twice. The women don’t get out of their building much. Probably not a bad idea, considering. All I know is one of the people who was on the ship with her from Donderath said she swore she was innocent. Shop girl, I think. Someone said she stole something—wouldn’t matter whether it was true or not, if it’s the owner’s word against yours.”

  He hefted his pickaxe to get back to work. “She’s right, you know. You probably won’t see her again—at least, not unless you both survive to make it to the colony.”

  “How about the colonists?” Blaine asked, glad to leave the topic of Selane behind. “Do you know anyone who’s gotten his Ticket?”

  Swish-crack. Another piece of wood fell, neatly split. “Some. Not many. Most people leave Velant feet-first.” Dead. “But there’ve been a f
ew. Can’t say that the colonists have it much easier, although they’re not quite as far under the guards’ thumbs.”

  “The guards still patrol Skalgerston Bay,” Blaine said.

  Piran nodded. “Yeah. And ultimately, Prokief is still boss. But Bay-town isn’t the whole colony. If you make it long enough to earn your Ticket, you get a pouch of coins and a grant of ten acres of land.” He barked a laugh. “Now, that’s ten acres of Edgeland land, which isn’t like the farms back in Donderath. It’s hard-scrabble. But people manage. They build a house, buy some chickens and goats, grow whatever they can. Sometimes, people go in together to make a common homestead and work it together. That’s the way to do it. Most folks only go in to Bay-town for supplies or news, so I hear,” Piran said. “The homesteads are out beyond the town. And the guards hardly ever go out there.” He gave a knowing grin. “The guards know they’re only safe in packs, where there are plenty of witnesses. Out on the farms, far from town, anything could happen, and no one would be the wiser.”

  Piran fell silent as one of the guards strode toward them. “Move the wood you’ve cut out behind the kitchen and laundry. There’s a pile out there. Be quick about it; the Overseer expects you to finish the rest of this stack today.”

  Blaine and Piran loaded up armfuls of wood and headed behind the nearby row of buildings. The woodpile was set back from the buildings for fire reasons, closer to the high stockade fence than to the laundry and kitchen. There was already a large neat ‘wall’ of stacked cord wood that came almost to the top of Blaine’s head. But when they rounded the corner, Piran frowned and stopped, warning Blaine with a shake of his head to halt and say nothing.

  Slightly warmer temperatures had softened the ground. And in the mud behind the laundry, a confusing muddle of footprints appeared to have been caused by a struggle. One set of footprints led away, onto rocky ground.

  Piran and Blaine quietly set their wood down and followed a rustling noise out behind the woodpile. They split up, one to each side, moving silently. No one can see the space between the woodpile and the stockade, Blaine thought. It’s hidden from the buildings, and there’s no guard post close by on this stretch of the fence.

  When Blaine came around the woodpile, he saw a red-haired woman struggling against a muscular guard. Blaine and Piran started forward to help, since it was clear what the guard’s intentions were. The woman twisted in the guard’s grasp, and pulled her attacker off balance, forcing him to tumble across her shoulders. He had barely landed on the ground before she had a knife in him.

  Blaine and Piran stopped in their tracks. The guard’s eyes bulged and his face purpled. His mouth moved as if to scream, but only a hiss emerged from his lips. He moaned in pain and his whole body went rigid, then he collapsed and lay still.

  The woman was bent over the guard, and she raised her head with an angry hiss when she realized she was discovered. Blaine saw a knife glint in her hand.

  “Do you need help getting rid of that?” Blaine asked, holding up his hands palms out to show he meant no harm. “He looks heavy.”

  “Did you just say what I think you said?” Piran asked.

  Blaine shrugged. “I figure we all benefit if the problem disappears as quickly as possible.”

  A bemused smile touched the woman’s lips. She was slim and short, but clearly stronger than she looked. Her red hair was pulled back in a braid, and her face was smudged with dirt—maybe blood—but her green eyes suggested intelligence.

  “Over there,” she murmured, with a nod of her head.

  Blaine went to lift the dead guard while Piran stood watch. The woman walked a few more steps to where sparse grass partly covered a wooden door set flush with the ground. She gave a tug and opened the door part way, to a passage that loomed into darkness.

  “Put him in,” she said, and then added, “please.”

  “What is that?” Blaine asked, lugging the body to the opening and rolling him inside. The man fell like a sack of rocks, and Blaine did not hear him hit bottom.

  “Old dry well. Convenient for these kinds of things.”

  “Are you done yet?” Piran hissed.

  “Are you all right?” Blaine asked. He didn’t need an explanation to figure out why the guard was dead. The woman was pretty, and alone. He could guess most of what happened next.

  She gave a curt nod. “Better than he is, that’s for certain.” She gave him a sidelong look. “You look familiar. I’m Kestel Falke.”

  Blaine shook his head. “I don’t think we’ve met. I’m Mick. McFadden.”

  She glanced toward Piran. “Him, I know. Everyone knows Rowse. You’d better get out of here.”

  Piran glanced from Kestel to where Blaine had thrown the body. “This gives me an idea,” he said quietly. “How did you do it? That little knife shouldn’t have killed him.”

  Kestel flashed a proud grin. “Poisoned blade. He had it coming. Tried to get too friendly.”

  Piran gave her a cagy look. “You owe us, since we helped out here.”

  “And you’ll get us all caught if you don’t get out of here,” she said, hands on hips.

  “I want some of that poison,” Piran said. “Consider it hush money.”

  Kestel rolled her eyes, but she dug beneath her bodice and pulled out a small folded bit of parchment. “Here,” she said. “I can make more. Mind you don’t get it under your skin, or you’ll be the dead one. Works best on a blade. Doesn’t need much of a cut, but deeper is better. Works pretty fast.” She eyed Piran. “You have someone in mind?”

  Piran grinned. “Oh yeah. And he’s definitely got it coming.”

  “You’re kidding—an assassin?” Blaine questioned as he and Piran headed back to the woodpile, after stacking the cordwood behind the laundry and kitchen. Just for good measure, they had made certain to muddy the footprints so that no one would notice one man’s boots never walked away.

  Piran nodded and glanced around to make certain they wouldn’t be overheard. “Yeah. Spy, too, from what they say. And the most popular courtesan in King Merrill’s court. Not like I was ever anywhere near the royal court, but we heard stories in the army from some of the officers. It was quite a big deal when she got caught. Apparently, she worked for some pretty powerful nobles—maybe even the king himself. They couldn’t let her go, but she had the money and the connections to finagle exile instead of hanging, so here she is.”

  Blaine’s mouth went dry. She thought I looked familiar. Could she possibly have remembered me from court? I didn’t go often, but often enough, perhaps. But I was nobody important, no one worth remembering. Another possibility occurred to him. Unless my father bought her services—or one of his enemies did, and I got to him first.

  That raised disquieting possibilities. Blaine decided to put them out of his mind—for now.

  “What do you intend to do with the item you got?” Blaine asked in a low voice as they returned to finish chopping wood.

  Piran gave him a look as if he were a simpleton. “What do you think?”

  Blaine rolled his eyes. “I didn’t mean what so much as who.”

  Piran cocked an eyebrow. “I think you know. But the bigger question is how. That’s going to take some planning.”

  “You’ve never heard the saying ‘better the wolf you know than the wolf you don’t?’”

  Piran chuckled. “You mean a replacement could be worse than the original.”

  “It’s certainly possible, given where we are.”

  Piran gave Blaine a look as he thought for a moment. “You killed someone to end up here, didn’t you?”

  Blaine had not shared the details of his story with anyone in Velant, but the branded ‘M’ for ‘murderer’ on his forearm made some things public knowledge. “Yeah. But you knew that already.”

  Piran nodded. “Are you sorry about it?”

  “Not in the least,” Blaine replied without stopping to think about it.

  “Even though you’ll pay a price for it for the rest of your life?

  Blaine grimaced as he saw where Piran was going with his logic. “I get it,” he said. “But have a care. I thought what I did brought judgment on me alone. I discovered that my actions affected a lot of other people who might not think I did them any favors.”

  “You think it can get worse than it is?”

  Blaine inclined his head toward one of the bodies in the gibbet. “Ask him.”

  “It figures that Prokief would put us on the crew to prop the damn roof back up,” Piran muttered.

  “I suspect that we’re near the top of his list when it comes to expendable prisoners,” Blaine replied.

  Two days had passed since the disaster, enough time for Pig-face and the other mine bosses to be sure the collapse would not trigger a series of cave-ins before they sent a team of miners into the wreckage.

  “Keep it down!” Pig-face snapped from where he stood in the safety of the corridor. “There’s work to do. Your quotas haven’t changed. The longer it takes to shore up the roof, the more you’ll have to mine to make up for lost time.”

  Shielded from Pig-face’s view by his body, Piran made an obscene gesture at the overseer, a futile but satisfying defiance. Bickle, Torr, and Shorty had been sent into the mine with them. Now, as Blaine looked around the debris-clogged room, he hardly knew where to begin.

  “We could use some light,” Piran yelled over his shoulder. “The cave-in took out half the lanterns. We can’t dig out what we can’t see.”

  Pig-face gestured to a cart full of tools and equipment. “So, put up sconces. There are torches in the wagon.”

  Blaine and Piran exchanged a glance. “Commander Prokief forbade torches because of the firedamp,” Blaine replied. ‘Firedamp’ was what miners called the bad air that sometimes seeped into mine chambers. It was highly explosive.

  “We don’t have lanterns to spare,” Pig-face said. “Use the torches or do without.”

  “I don’t fancy surviving a cave-in to be blown sky high,” Piran muttered.

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